Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Bear Claws: Archer review


ARCHER: 'Stage Two'

Well that came out of the blue. 'Stage Two' was, as ever, a frequently hysterical episode of Archer, getting by far the biggest laugh of the season with Pam and her bear claws (rawr!), but the cancer plot - which I assume will continue into the next episode - never sits all that comfortably. It's not so much the subject matter as that it's happening in the middle of a season, with no prior foreshadowing that I can remember. The gags that came out of it were top notch, but the plot itself felt out of place.

For one thing, Archer rarely bothers doing serialised storylines with much dedication. The Wee Baby Seamus makes a brief appearance, but has been largely discarded for story arc purposes. The search for Archer's father also seems to have been lost since it was a key component of the final episode of last season, suggesting that there was more to come.  It's hardly a major issue - the programme is more than funny enough in its current form as a series of standalone stories - but I get the feeling that Archer's cancer is also likely to be written out easily within an episode or two. As a comedic device, it's terrific. As a dramatic one, the subject seems a bit too heavy to introduce from nowhere and probably ditch just as quickly. But what the heck. Bear claws! Rawr!
I suppose that if nothing else, the episode never pretended that the cancer plot was to be taken as anything more significant than an excuse for more ridiculous Archer humour. It's first used to give us Malory in mega-bitch mode - yes, even moreso than usual - as she enters the ISIS offices, scrambles Cyril's carefully assembled punchcards and drowns Pam's marzipan farm, to name but a few of her misdeeds. The best thing about this episode was that it centred entirely around the office staff and didn't feature any kind of spy-related activity. Staff episodes are usually the strongest, not least as it gives the supporting cast greater prominence, which never fails to produce the goods.

That's not to run down Archer and Lana, both of whom got some great moments last night and continue to benefit from the sterling (pun) voicework of H. Jon Benjamin and Aisha Tyler, but frankly, it's rare that a scene featuring any combination of Pam, Cheryl and/or Krieger won't end up being the best in any given episode. Krieger's little asides about his human-animal hybrids ("Aww, Goatley!" "Aww, Pigley!") were wonderfully timed, and brought about a venomously inspired callback to Babe. Pam had her drowned farm and bear claws (plus a poke of Lana's breast), while Cheryl was as deranged as usual and has somehow gone through life without knowing what cancer is.

If I were being nit-picky, Cheryl's stupidity could be said to have been pushed a touch too far to maintain any pretence of realism, but then again, she and Pam make such a sensational double act that the question quickly becomes moot. She is one of the few characters to have not had any part of her background revealed yet, though, so I wonder whether the writers are a little worried about this too.

Once Malory is given the all-clear, the twist is that it's actually Archer who has contracted breast cancer, which he seems to find more annoying for being breast cancer than just cancer in general. His manipulation of those around him for his own benefit made for a host of strong comic set-pieces, the best of which was him taking over Wodehouse's holiday with his brother Dicky in Vegas, conveyed as a photo montage which ended in Dicky fleeing to Mexico and Archer framing Cyril for his crimes. In the meantime, he also gets a matching tattoo with Wee Baby Seamus - yes, the baby gets one too - and coerces Lana into giving him pity sex.

Unfortunately, despite the awesome comic momentum that had been built up, the episode ended on a strangely underwhelming note, with the repeated gag of Archer's doctor at first giving him the all-clear, then phoning back to change his mind, and so on in that fashion. It was funny once or twice, especially with Archer swapping between his sympathetic cancer-afflicted self (and hinting at his hidden feelings for Lana) and the normal Archer whenever he assumed he was cured, but quickly got tiresome. Repetition can sometimes be a potent comedic device, as proven by the legendary Simpsons gag of Sideshow Bob being repeatedly smacked in the face with rakes, but the joke here wasn't silly or surprising enough to work. It always felt like a twist should have been on the way, but never arrived.

Aside from that misstep, which also sets up the prospect that the cancer plot will continue into the next episode (something else I'm not mad about), this episode was still 90% brilliant and featured all the lewd gags, office interactions and character work that mark out the best Archer episodes. Last week was always going to be very difficult to top and while the episode as a whole fell short, several of the individual gags were among the season's best.


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